A territory or country as political entity or a grouping of people who share real or imagined common history, culture, language or ethnic origin, often possessing or seeking its own government. (The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edn)
From local to national level, our Government is talking about social cohesion and “building a greater sense of community”. This is because Australians are isolated and politically inactive, and perhaps as a result, we are lacking a unifying, national vision.
According to the ABS, in 2006, about 12 per cent of adults were living alone and spent, on average, 9.5 waking hours alone everyday (equivalent to 61 per cent of their waking hours). Furthermore, approximately 29 per cent of lone people had at least one mental disorder in the last 12 months and volunteer rates dropped by almost 10 per cent compared with those living with others. Even for Australians living with others, the statistics aren’t much better and one-in-three feel that most people can’t be trusted.
I’ve recently returned from Tanzania, a nation which seems to innately foster the social cohesion we are striving to manufacture in our society. There are obviously contextual differences to take into account, for example, countries that struggle with widespread poverty often pull together in ways that competition-driven developed nations do not. But there are valuable lessons to be leant about community democracy from the most ancient peoples on Earth.
Democracy at a local level is ingrained in their culture, and completely forgotten in ours. One example of this: Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard launches her new National Curriculum for schools, without any input from teachers and students, the president of the Australian Primary Principles Association says, “Let’s find out what schools do need, what individual teachers do need. We should almost do an audit.”
When Britain released its colonies, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, overnight, they were left with no infrastructure or government, wealth or defence, and surrounded by war-torn neighbours. There were only 120 university graduates in the entire country and one of them, the first and longest-serving President, managed to form a peaceful and democratic Tanzania out of the chaotic power vacuum that was left by the British by reinvigorating Tanzania’s ancient tradition of Ujamaa.
Ujamaa roughly translates to “familyhood”. It’s a socialist and humanist way of thinking that recognises all people as equals and views society as an extension of the basic family unit. Nyerere told his people, “No true African socialist can look at a line drawn on a map and say, ‘The people on this side of the line are my brothers, but those who happen to lie on the other side of it can have no claim on me.’ Every individual on this continent is his brother.”
In an impoverished rural area I visited, school headmasters told me that their community takes care of their school if there is damage or maintenance needs. (Kikwete’s government has doubled the number of schools in the country in the past four years but struggles, alongside most African states, to source teachers and funds to maintain school resources.)
This sounds reasonable enough, but when a family can afford only one meal a day it seems impossible.
But, even in the most oppressive poverty, Tanzanians shared an ideal vision of a global family. They see themselves as individuals in a family, who must contribute in ideas and in labour or capital. From village plans to parliamentary decisions, the individual has a say. They hold hands when talking and usually refer to people (local or foreign) as brothers and sisters. Families (not necessary blood-relatives) live in large households and very rarely live alone. Men and women of all ages are involved in decision-making. Each individual knows everyone in their community because everyone is expected to be involved in maintaining it.
So, how is it that Australians, who have enjoyed sustained economic stability, have never developed the sense of community that all Tanzanians foster?
There are two particular reasons: unlike the Tanzanians, white Australian society has no vision of itself and has no common culture passed down across generations. As Nyerere wrote, “We, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our past - in the traditional society which produced us.”